Ken Lawrence was born and raised in Chicago. At age 17, in the fall of 1960, he traveled to Atlanta to attend the conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and witnessed the emerging civil rights movement at first hand. The following spring, after his second year of college, Ken left school to become a full-time activist.
Ken moved to Mississippi in 1971 to work full time as an organizer, writer, and supporter of peace, labor, and civil rights struggles. From 1971 to 1975, he was the Deep South representative of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, and correspondent for The Southern Patriot, a monthly civil-rights movement paper. His articles were frequently reprinted in other papers, sometimes worldwide in foreign languages.
Ken Lawrence: Philatelic Achievements
Ken Lawrence Personal Statement: Collecting and Exhibiting Mail of the Holocaust
He co-edited with Jan Hillegas and George P. Rawick five volumes of Mississippi slave narratives, and smaller numbers of volumes for other states, that had been gathered by the WPA Federal Writers Project in the 1930s but were abandoned with the coming of the war. The entire collection was published by Greenwood Press under the title The American Slave, a Composite Autobiography, for which Ken wrote an introduction to the Mississippi section. It is still in print.
During the year 1976, Ken worked for Bennie Thompson, then mayor of Bolton, Mississippi (and later a Representative in the U.S. Congress), as director of the Bolton Bicentennial Project, to bring African American history to life in that town through imaginative public reenactments of past events. He founded and directed the Deep South People’s History Project to expand these aims throughout the region.
Ken worked as program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s anti-surveillance project in Mississippi from 1977 to 1979. He organized a class-action lawsuit against the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the government agency created to thwart the civil-rights movement using infiltration, disruption, covert action, and violence. (In an article about that struggle in the May 29, 1995, New Yorker, Calvin Trillin included a reference to Ken’s collection of Holocaust mail among his accounts of Ken’s activism.) The case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996, where the plaintiff class that Ken represented won a long-awaited victory. After notices to victims were published in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, the majority of the files were opened to scholars, journalists, and the public on March 17, 1998. Disclosures in the files prompted prosecutors to reopen investigations of two civil-rights leaders martyred in the 1960s, Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, which resulted in convictions of their racist murderers, Byron De La Beckwith and Sam Bowers, and the 1964 murders of three civil-rights workers in Neshoba County that led to the 2005 conviction of Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen.
Ken co-authored two AFSC publications, J. Edgar Hoover’s Detention Plan: The Politics of Repression in the United States 1939-1976 and The Police Threat to Political Liberty, the national anti-surveillance program’s final report.
In 1979 Ken founded the Anti-Repression Resource Team to continue the work begun by AFSC, and he represented AFSC in Greensboro, North Carolina, investigating the Ku Klux Klan massacre of five members of the Communist Workers Party at an anti-Klan demonstration. He developed anti-racism and anti-Klan seminar programs for the United Methodist Voluntary Service, conducted throughout the country with the support of that church’s Board of Global Ministries in New York. He became a free-lance reporter, and for several years a columnist for CovertAction Information Bulletin.
In the 1980s, Ken’s anti-repression organizing consisted largely of working to free political prisoners and grand jury resisters in Mississippi, Illinois, and Colorado, in solidarity with New African, Puerto Rican, and Mexican/Chicano movements.
In 1983, Ken prepared a slide presentation and lecture based his photographs taken at the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. In its original form, Buchenwald was tailored to the needs of the anti-Klan movement in Mississippi and of the National Anti-Klan Network. Later he revised it for a broader public audience and toured universities in the United States, Canada, and Germany with that program.
In 1984 Ken prepared a packet of materials on political repression for use by grass-roots political, community, and church groups, called Repression and Resistance, published and distributed by the United Methodist Voluntary Service, and a pamphlet, Suspending the Constitution, issued by the United Methodist Church’s Office of Political and Human Rights, a program sponsored by the Board of Homeland Ministries.
Ken’s involvement in the Southern Freedom Movement eventually took him to other countries. His human-rights work became international in scope, especially programs in solidarity with movements for liberation in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. He was a director of the South African Military Refugee Aid Fund, providing support for conscientious objectors and deserters from the South African armed forces. (When Nelson Mandela came to the United States in 1990 after his release from prison, Ken was one of 100 anti-apartheid activists invited to the private briefing he presented to supporters in New York before his public appearances and White House visit).
In 1983 and 1984 Ken traveled to Central America with a delegation from Oxfam America to work in solidarity with Sandinista Front in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement in El Salvador. He visited Salvadoran refugees in Honduras, and brought back drawings of the war by Salvadoran children. Back in the United States, he took the children’s drawings on national tour in support of the anti-war and sanctuary movements. Life magazine purchased Ken’s reports on refugees from war in Central America, as did Das Magazin in Germany. In 2005 he donated the Salvadoran children’s drawings to the Conflict Transformation Program of Eastern Mennonite University.
Ken’s articles have appeared in more than 100 publications worldwide, including The Nation, Southern Exposure, Liberation News Service, The Reporter, Lies of Our Times, and Radical America. His other publications include The New State Repression; Thirty Years of Selective Service Racism; The Roots of Class Struggle in the South; Mississippi’s First Labor Union; History in the Service of Racism; 1776-1976: 200 Years of Freedom Struggle in Mississippi; The Life and Times of Charles Caldwell; Fighting the Klan; The Ku Klux Klan and Fascism; and several pamphlets on liberation struggles in Southern Africa. He is a contributing author to the anthology Dirty Work 2: The CIA in Africa.
In 1993, Ken moved to State College, Pennsylvania, and today he lives in nearby Spring Mills. He was a trustee of the American Philatelic Research Library from 2001 to 2007. He has a small consulting business that serves advanced stamp collectors. His exhibit The Nazi Scourge: Postal Evidence of the Holocaust and the Devastation of Europe won acclaim nationally and internationally. In 2006, he wrote a script for The Nazi Scourge which the Philatelic Foundation produced as a two-part DVD program for circulation to schools. In 2007 Ken’s collection was acquired by the Florence and Laurence Spungen Foundation, which is concerned with Jewish issues and intends to circulate it widely through tours and on the Internet.
Ken is a free-lance writer, researcher, editor, lecturer, historian, and media consultant. He received the (MORE) journalism review Rosebud award for excellence in 1975, and the Mississippi Historical Society’s Certificate of Merit in 1976.
In 2007, Ken donated his large collection of worldwide political protest memorabilia — posters, buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other ephemera, 1940-2000 — to the Labor Archive at Pennsylvania State University.
In 2009 he was interviewed on the History Detectives television program about the Scottsboro case.
(rev. June 12, 2010)